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Beginning farmer legislation introduced

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 05/20/2013 9:31 AM

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LAMBERTON, Minn. — The United States will miss the chance to have more people and more economic opportunity in rural areas if Congress doesn't include public policy to support beginning farmers in the next farm bill.

That's why Ryan Batalden, of Lamberton, supports the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on April 25. The bipartisan legislation has several co-sponsors.

"With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority," Walz said in a press release. "To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own. The Beginning Farmers and Rancher Opportunity Act works to do just that."

"This legislation will help families and individuals across our nation apply their talents, motivation, and dedication to start and continue farm and ranch operations and revitalize rural America," Harkin said in a press release. "Beginning farmers and ranchers will benefit from practical assistance in this bill, including effective training and mentoring, better access to and careful use of credit, enhanced support for conservation, and help in starting and succeeding in profitable enterprises such as value-added businesses."

Batalden said he didn't realize how important access to farm programs would be to him as a beginning farmer.

He moved back to the farm after college because he saw opportunity. His parents had converted their cropland to organic, making it economically feasible for him to join the operation. When they farmed conventionally, there wasn't enough income to support two families.

A landowner who wanted her land transitioned to organic also helped his agricultural career. The landowner had heard of an Environmental Quality Incentives Program that aided farmers as they transitioned from conventional to organic production.

He signed up and was accepted into EQIP for the transition. It takes 36 months from the last prohibited chemical or conventional fertilizer application for a field to be certified organic, Batalden said. Crops can't be sold as organic until the field is certified organic.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act gives a cost-share bonus for beginning, limited resource and socially disadvantaged producers who use EQIP. It also allows for an advance payment option for beginning farmers.

Batalden has used EQIP three times to make changes or modifications to his farming operation. He also has one Conservation Stewardship Program contract.

The act doesn't give priority to beginning farmers for the CSP, nonetheless Batalden qualified and said the program made many things he wanted to try possible.

The CSP pays farmers for conservation on working lands. Farmers must make conservation improvements and document those improvements.

Batalden added cover crops or green manure crops to his rotation. It's physiologically difficult to spend money on a crop he won't harvest, he said. Cover crops and green manure crops are tricky and finicky.

He's rotationally grazing organic stock cows and he's planted pollinator habitat.

He and his family finish steers and direct market beef. He and his wife, Tiffany, and his parents also have a diversified crop rotation including corn, feed grade soybeans, tofu-grade soybeans, spring wheat, rye, buckwheat, popcorn and specialty oilseed crops.

Like any portfolio more diversity is better in the long run, Batalden said.

A huge percentage of farmers will be retiring in the next decade, he said. Public policy needs to support young farmers, which will lead to a stronger and more resilient food system and rural communities.

Batalden, a member of the Land Stewardship Project, said he plans to call or email federal elected officials to express his support for the beginning farmer legislation.

The legislation aims to help the next generation of farmers and ranchers take advantage of opportunities in agriculture and overcome barriers to entry. It includes support for beginning farmer and rancher training programs, conservation incentives for new farmers and ranchers and lending provisions.

The provisions are expected to be included in the farm bill, which is expected to be marked up in both the House and Senate this week.

"We're going to build momentum behind this legislation and I'm committed to securing new farmer provisions in a farm bill . . . ," Walz said in a press release. "It's the right investment and the right time to grow and support new farmers and ranchers in American agriculture."